Works in the Herald 1933

He is a small, bald, spectacled man of paternal aspect, with a mild and kindly blue eye and a manner that is at once diffident and confidential.

I already know very many of his opinions in detail concerning very many public questions, scientific theories and social practices. But know nothing of his name, his profession, history, religion, domestic arrangements, or anything even remotely intimate concerning him. I feel sure he seeks to know nothing of such particulars regarding myself. Yet we are friends; almost, one might say, cronies.

Once in every little while, when I am alone in the city, and my purse permits it, I dine at a certain hotel, famed for its cuisine and its prices, and usually rather crowded in the evening. Invariably I arrive first. Shortly afterwards my spectacled friend appears in tow of the head-waiter, searching for a vacant table.

"Perhaps, Charles," he says to the waiter, "as the room is crowded -- perhaps, if this gentleman permits --"

He treats me to a most delightfully polite little bow, and the waiter seats him. Then he studies the menu, orders, and sits in meditative silence for quite a long interval. Then he begins, and I listen.

The last time I saw him he had ordered vol-au-vent, and again fell silent. Then, quite suddenly, he remarked, apropos of nothing: "It is rather absurd, you know."

That is always the manner of his opening gambit; it is my cue to look up, questioning.

"Not that I under-rate the importance of names," said he. "But why vol-au-vent, when everyone knows it is merely a puff pie, usually of chicken?"

"Names," continued my little bald friend, "are convenient appurtenances for purpose of easy identification, and amongst friends. Amongst scientists, and for international scientific purposes, the use of names, derived from a dead language and applied to bird or plant, to chemical or to various parts of the anatomy of animals, is clearly desirable for universal understanding. But for those otherwise estimable laymen -- ah, thank you, Charles. Perhaps this gentleman would join me in a bottle of wine?"

He knows I never drink wine, but he always asks. Accepting my polite refusal, he orders for himself a small bottle of expensive and shrewdly chosen sauterne, and continues.

"As I was saying: For those otherwise estimable laymen who make a fetish of exotic nomenclature, and stop at that, I have only impatient scorn. To bespatter casual conversation with Greek and Latin appellations is a vulgarism that I greatly deplore.

"And I grieve to notice, even amongst my own friends, a growing tendency to substitute foreign for beautiful English names of certain flowers and plants. For example, to call a forget-me-not a myosotis is to me a smug sacrilege; to refer to the delightfully named columbine as an aquilegia is a pedantic offence; while upon those supposed lovers of beautiful things so lost to all decency as to substitute calendule for marigold I could wish a murrain of mearly-bug and a plague of thrips.

"I feel rather strongly about this, because recently, while listening with a friend to the joyous melody of a grey thrush, my friend had the pedagogic impertinence to refer to that glorious songster as Colluricincla harmonica. A little later, when I had occasion to point out to this lingual pervert the beauty of a perfectly formed and dew-wet hedge-rose -- a common hedge-rose -- he snorted disdainfully; and it did not surprise me. He belongs definitely to that species of homo more or less sapiens which I have come to think of as the Primrose family. Yes, the Primrose family. You apprehend the reference, of course?

"'A primrose by the river's brim --' Dear me! Can it be so late?"

My friend glanced at his watch, rose hastily and, with another very polite little bow, went out. He never partakes of more than two courses, with the wine, and he always leaves before I am half-way through dinner.

I sometimes think he is a scientist or professor of some kind. I do know that he is a couteous and entertaining old humbug.

But I do not seek to know anything concerning him; for I feel it would in some way utterly spoil an otherwise delightful friendship.

Herald, 24 October 1933, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002